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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Government Intelligence 101 - Information for Writers with Jeff Critser

Author, Jeff Critser
Fiona - 

Hi Jeff - so great that you stopped by ThrillWriting today - can you take a minute and introduce yourself to the readers? You know the usual - what you've done with your life, your aspirations, and dreams...

Jeff - 
Sure thing. I am a former Naval Aviator and military intelligence officer on national SIGINT programs. I've always had a storytelling mindset (despite being an engineer by training) and during a writing assignment in graduate school, I knew at that stage that I wanted to be a novelist. Tom Clancy was one of my first inspirations when he wrote The Hunt for Red October, and even to this day, he is one of my favorite authors.

In addition to working signals intelligence operations (SIGINT) in the military and other national operations, I consult on security programs today in a variety of capacities. My main goal as an author is to weave stories in and around intelligence and espionage situations.

Fiona - 
Let's start there. Can you give us a mini tutorial. A kind of "What Every Author Should Know About Intelligence" overview?

Jeff - 
Here are some of the key points I would like to impart to the readers regarding military intelligence:

1) Intelligence agencies are byzantine organizations. They are
     highly compartmentalized, thus making it difficult for any one
     person (or persons) to know all of the activities and operations.
     Even the appointed heads of NSA, DIA, and other military
     agencies (a flag-ranked officer*)  only serve for a few years at
     the post and have difficulty learning the full breadth and scope
     of their own organization. Most of the continuous knowledge
     base resides with the deputy directors (civilians) who serve in
     the same role for many years.

   * Flag Rank Definition: (DOD) A term applied to an officer
      holding the rank of general, lieutenant general, major general,
      or brigadier general in the US Army, Air Force or Marine
      Corps or admiral, vice admiral, rear admiral or commodore in
      the US Navy or Coast Guard. source

The seal of the U.S. National Security Agency....
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2) The compartmentalization and frenetic pace of intel collection and the backlog of background checks can lead to security breaches and help enable turncoats like Edward Snowden. The intel community relies too heavily on Counter Intelligence (CI)/Lifetsyle Polygraphs (with EPQ*) to “catch” potential spies. While there has been considerable push-back regarding the validity of polygraphs, the agencies are essentially doubling down on them to shore up security problems.

(*EPQ: Embarrassing Personal Questions)

Link - to NSA Polygraph brochure dos and don'ts, expectations.

 3) Most intelligence agencies exists to provide actionable
     intelligence to the war fighter in the field. That is
     why most of the intelligence agencies are part of the DoD and
     not civilian. The CIA is a major intel agency but is not part of 
     the defense establishment. 

 4) There are 16 identified intelligence agencies (actual number is

      The “Big Five” agencies are:
National Geospatial Intelligence Agency
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
      * Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) 
      * National Security Agency (NSA) 
      * National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) 
      * Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) 
      * National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency 

       While most people think the CIA is the
       biggest intelligence group, the NSA and
       NRO have much larger budgets (which is

 5) Inter-agency rivalries and feuds are very common, marked by
     senior representatives from each agency vying to out-work the 
     others for recognition and control of budget. There are
     numerous examples (most of which cannot be discussed
     outside of a cleared audience) in which a major intelligence
     operation went terribly wrong because one group refused to
     share intelligence with a sister agency for fear of losing bragging
     rights or having budgets diminished. The Berlin Wall tunnel 
     snafu during the Cold War was a famous case of inter-agency 
     fighting and posturing. Despite many attempts to corral this 
     infighting, these feuds are still prevalent today. In my
     novel, COLD SHADOWS, the various agencies had different
     parts to play. The insidious Rafter was a direct action (DA)
     operative from a deep black  group of the CIA. The DIA was the
     agency overseeing operation URGENT VECTOR, and the NSA
     was providing real time SIGINT tracking for targets of interest.

Fiona - 
You were explaining to me that the agencies are byzantine, and they are run by both military and civilians. The military are rotated out fairly rapidly leaving these groups to mainly be captained by civilians. What qualifies the civilians and is there difficulty in communication between these two groups and trust issues?

Jeff - 
There are significant trust issues between the agencies because they compete for recognition and funding by the White House, Congress and National Command Authority. The main weapon they use against one another is withholding information from another agency.

The military staff in these agencies have significant operational experience and provide critical insight as to what works (or what won't work) while most of the civilians are scientists, analysts, and engineers that are focused on the technologies and developments needed to accomplish the mission. For example, the NSA is one of the largest employers of scientists and engineers in the world. These guys are 20-30 years ahead of anything we've seen in the commercial sector.

Fiona - 
Who is more likely to be the next Snowden? Military personnel or civilian?

Jeff -
Современный компьютерный полиграф ЭПОС-7: сенс...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Traditionally, leaks come more from civilians than military, but both sides have been guilty over the years. Two issues that impact the trustworthiness of the people hired for these sensitive programs are: 
1) The overload that the investigative teams
    are facing with vetting employees for
2) The dependence on CI/Lifestyle
     Polygraphs for weeding out potential
     traitors. Many of the traitors
     historically have passed their polys with no
     problem, so the efficacy of these are often

Fiona - 
Polygraphs and psychopaths don't mix. As in - a psychopath (like your character, Rafter) won't have biomarkers of anxiety.

Jeff - 
Yes, that is correct. Many psychopaths and sociopaths will pass their polygraphs. They have no conscience.

Fiona - 
The NRO - Why have I never heard of this before our little chat?

Jeff - 
NRO logo
NRO logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The NRO is highly secretive because they maintain and operate the entire fleet of "overhead assets." This is intel-speak for spy satellites. Some of the most sensitive technologies used in the intelligence gathering reside in the satellites. Very powerful and highly sensitive programs exist with the "overheads."

Fiona - 
Okay so let's talk vocab.

Jeff - 

Seal of the C.I.A. - Central Intelligence Agen...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Sure thing

Fiona - 
DA means direct action what would that entail?
Also, Deep black and SA...

Jeff - 
CIA DA groups are ones that employ paramilitary tools and techniques to accomplish the mission. They're armed with conventional and unconventional weaponry and spy gear/techniques (called "tradecraft") to accomplish the mission. CIA DA teams belong to the clandestine services are often recruited from military special operations teams like SEAL Team Six (DEVGRU) and Delta.Deep black means "Special Access Program." This is abbreviated as "SAP". SAP programs are ones that don't officially "exist" and are wrapped in very tight secrecy and highly compartmented. Before the F-117 and B2 programs were released to the public, they were SAP.
"Above Top Secret" is used a lot in the movies and TV. Here's what that means: The clearances run, Confidential, Secret, Top Secret, and Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information (abbreviated "TS/SCI"). The TS/SCI programs require very special clearances and "need-to-know" before someone can be "read in" to the program. These are the so-called "above Top Secret" clearances.

Fiona - 
"NSA was providing real time SIGINT tracking for targets of interest." Explain SIGINT

Jeff - 
SIGINT is Signals Intelligence. Essentially, this is intelligence garnered and exploited through any electronic medium. Cell phones, faxes, emails, radar, etc. SIGINT is gathered through a global array of very sophisticated sensors that eavesdrop on electronic comms.

LINK - This is the NSA frequently asked questions document.

Fiona - 
If I put this information into my blog, tell the truth, will the NSA bang on my door? Not that I'm afraid - I like meeting new people, mind you - I just want to be prepared.

Jeff - 
No worries, we will not divulge anything that is sensitive.

Fiona - 
Explain the use of the word paramilitary.

Jeff - 
Para literally means "above". This does not mean that paramilitary groups are better than military from that word, but that the teams have are trained and outfitted similarly to elite military teams, but their missions and reporting agencies are very different from military ones. The CIA clandestine service is a "paramilitary" group As stated before, many in that group come from military spec-ops, SEALS, Delta, Force Recon, etc

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Fiona - 
Your thriller Cold Shadows has to walk a line between being accurate with the terms (the alphabet soup of military talk) and vocabulary that civilians use. You also have the CIA, DIA, and NSA involved. DIA being the Defense Intelligence Agency. When many people don't know what these agencies are/do how do you pull the reader along? I imagine that this is problematic for anyone who is coming from a place of expertise and now, as novelists, they have to "keep it real" and yet keep it accessible.

Jeff - 
It is a very fine line to walk, and if you're not careful, you could end up in the weeds and confuse the reader. Some authors go way too deeply into the military jargon and operational speak. For me, I have no problem following that since that is the world that I come from, but civilians' eyes glaze over pretty quickly. In COLD SHADOWS, I wanted to give just enough detail to explain what was happening (and to keep military enthusiasts happy) without boring the reader with deep technical descriptions.

The feedback so far has been very positive that there was enough explanation embedded without killing the pace of the story.

The military loves jargon and bizarre vernacular, so authors with military backgrounds have to remind themselves to not wade too deeply into those waters unless the work in question is specifically intended for a military audience. If that is the case, then the more techno-speak, the better!

Fiona - 
So when you are reading along, and a civilian has attempted to make a military enthusiast happy, what is a tell-tale sign that they are not from a military background? Do you see a mistake pattern that you can give us a heads-up about?

Yes, military people pick up on that right away

For example, the "above Top Secret" line. Nobody with SCI access uses that term. When I see it, I know it was from a civilian with no intel background

Fiona - 
Is it offensive? Amusing? Irritating?

It's not offensive, but it's irritating that it's not authentic.

Fiona - 
So they should buddy up with a military guy/gal and get them to beta read for them?

Jeff - 
That's always a good idea.

Fiona - 
So writers the big take away here is - if you know the vernacular use it like salt a little adds flavor too much makes the end product unpalatable - and writers if you don't have the background seek out a beta reader and bake them a chocolate cake to thank them for their help.

So here's an snippet from a story I'm working on:
Amanda reached out to pull her purse from its resting spot by the sink. Reaching in, she retrieved her work badge. It was a Pentagon issued SCI biometric badge. “Sensitive Compartmented Information, Amanda? Dr. Amanda Campbell? What the hell?"

Jeff - 
Regarding Dr. Campbell, Small point of distinction with SCI - 
The general clearance level is called "TS/SCI", but her actual compartments that she is cleared for would be listed after "TS". 

I can't list the actual compartments because the names are classified, so I will make this up. If she were cleared for the "ZEBRA ELEPHANT" compartment, her clearance in writing would read "TS/ZE". You can make up fictional compartments (they're typically two words) and use that in your writing. Only people who are similarly cleared will know the actual compartments, and they will NEVER be used outside of a cleared SCIF. SCIF - Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. These are the blacked out rooms with big vault doors and armed guards and only special comms gear inside.

Fiona - 
Yes, that's what she does. Define "comms gear."

Jeff - 
Communications gear that is encrypted to that level of security needed for that SCIF. No regular phones or computers.

Fiona - 
Okay so on her badge what would it say to give her access to the area?

Jeff - 
It usually says nothing, but it will have several things on it. 
1) A photo 
2) Bio-metric coded info (for readers that have it) 
3) A color scheme to denote the compartments she's cleared for 
4) Her name 

Fiona - 
You can tell she is SCI by the colors on her badge?

Jeff - 
Yes. The color codes are unique to the agency and are classified in their meaning. It helps make sure that everyone can quickly spot those who are cleared and those who aren't.

Fiona - 
OK I'll revisit how I said that. May I cut a slice of your chocolate cake for you now?

Jeff - 
Yes, thank you. It's fine how it is. Just a very minor point in distinction. Remember, the compartments are never spoken in an unclassified setting. The names of the compartments themselves are classified.

For writers of intelligence-genre books, have fun with the writing and let your imagination run wild. Call on a friend who is "in the business" if you need a reality check on what you've written. A VERY important thing to remember is that you should NEVER divulge an actual intelligence apparatus/asset or operation if you have knowledge of it. Not only will you land in a lot of legal hot water including jail time, but you will be endangering the lives of agents in the field. For most people, though, knowledge of actual operations is hard to come by, so this rule isn't broken often. Have fun, be imaginative, and sweep the characters into the deep unknown. The more fictional it may appear, the closer to reality you might actually be.

Fiona -
This is the part of the interview when I whip out our traditional question, "Tell us the story behind your favorite scar."

Jeff - 
Well, the one that is most prominent in my life is above my left eye. It was from a soccer accident at Vanderbilt in my senior year. It required surgery to fix my badly broken nose and ruptured blood vessels. The interesting part was that exactly two years earlier, I had another head-on collision with a player that damaged my right eye (also needed it stitched). The player that ran into me was the same guy both times, just two years apart. After being hit the second time, I actually started to punch him for splitting my head open (again!). I couldn't see because I had blood in my eyes, but I found him on the ground next to me and started punching him furiously. We were both taken to the hospital for surgery (he had torn a major blood vessel in his head that had to be sewn together).

Fiona - 
Was there a girl involved in this saga?

Jeff - 
No girl this time...just two aggressive males duking it out on the field two different times two years apart. I even yelled obscenities at him as we rode in the ambulance together (side by side gurneys).

Fiona - 
I caught the "this time" bit about the girl. The chances of being hit by the same guy are really pretty slim - I'm sure you've considered that this was karmic retribution for some past life offense...

Jeff - 
Most likely so. I've had my turn in the barrel for sure.

I would pay good money for the ambulance ride video.

Jeff - 
Had this been today, I'm sure it would be on YouTube from someone's cell phone camera two guys squirting blood out of their faces, blind, punching each other in the middle of a soccer field as ambulances rush to the scene. Classic. It looked more like a horror film. Texas Chainsaw style.

Fiona - 
Thanks to Jeff Critser for sharing his knowledge and insights with us. 

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.

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  1. Thanks and very helpful. Some of this will appear in GUT-CHECK GREEN. Even more in the thriller to follow. the name, however, remains Top Secret/SCI. Color code: Green. On'Ya. - Peter Prasad, author, GURL-POSSE KIDNAP.

  2. Ever so interesting. I can imagine the conversations between these secretive folks and their spouses.
    "How was your day, dear?"
    "What did you do today?"
    "Had meetings all day."
    "With John?"
    "Can't tell you."
    "About the new XYZ thingy?"
    "Can't tell you."
    "Are you hungry?"
    "Famished. What's for dinner?"
    "Mystery meat with secret sauce in a covert dish."

    No kidding. For some reason, all this stuff is madly interesting. Thanks for letting us in on some of it.

  3. Thanks Fiona and Jeff. This interview was very helpful. Can't wait to read the book.